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Thunderbird Lodge negotiates to reduce debt

Anne Knowles

Thunderbird Lodge is working to go it

alone.

The caretakers of the Lake Tahoe

estate are negotiating with Del Webb

Corp., now owned by Pulte Homes Inc.,

to erase the $10 million Thunderbird

Lodge still owes its former owner.

The hope is to remove the outstanding

debt so Thunderbird Lodge can operate

self-sufficiently as a non-profit tourist

attraction while it is maintained as a piece

of Nevada history.

“It is one of the most important buildings

in Nevada, after the capitol,” said Joe

Bourdeau, executive vice president of

business development at Nevada Security

Bank in Incline Village, and president of

the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation

Society.

For those who don’t know, the

Thunderbird Lodge is the lakeside estate

built in 1936 by George Whittell Jr., a

wealthy Californian who at one time

owned 40,000 acres surrounding Lake

Tahoe.

“He was the John Muir of Lake

Tahoe, not by design but by default,” said

Bourdeau.

Thanks to Whittell’s reclusive ways,

much of the land he owned was never

developed, and eventually ended up in the

hands of the U.S. Forest Service and

Nevada State Parks.

But as policy the Forest Service only

owns land, not buildings, so the

Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society

was founded in 1999 to take care of the

buildings on the estate.

Those buildings include a three-car

garage that was actually used by the animal-

loving Whittell to house elephants.

There is also a small, one-room building

once used by Whittell and his friends to

play poker. It’s connected to the main

house via a 600-foot tunnel that runs

underground from the lodge to the

estate’s original boat house. (A second

boat house was eventually built to dock

Whittell’s 55-foot Thunderbird yacht,

which is now owned by Joan Gibb and

can still be seen on the lake during the

summer.)

The lodge itself is a small, two-bedroom

stone building, with a larger addition

built in 1985 by its second owner,

Jack Dreyfus, founder of the Dreyfus

Fund. Dreyfus, who bought the property

in 1972, never lived in the house due to

what he perceived to be “the negative

ions,” said Bourdeau.

In 1998, Del Webb bought the lodge

and 140 acres for $50 million simply to

use it to acquire land in the Las Vegas

area. The corporation exchanged the

estate for Bureau of Land Management

property in Henderson. That property,

though, was valued at $40 million, leaving

the $10 million still owed to Del Webb as

part of the exchange. (The Henderson

property has since been turned into a

$340 million development, according to

Bourdeau.)

Now, Bourdeau is hopeful the preservation

society can convince Pulte to

donate the outstanding $10 million.

That would leave the lodge with

money raised from its capital campaign as

well as the revenue it generates from

operations.

The lodge is run with three fulltime

staff and 90 unpaid volunteers, who conduct

public tours, manage a gift shop and

help host weddings and corporate

retreats.

For a mere $16,000 a day, anyone can

host a Saturday wedding at the lodge.

(You can reduce that to $7,500 if you’re

willing to wed Monday through

Thursday.) A half-day corporate retreat

costs $5,500 Monday through Thursday

or $11,000 on Friday through Sunday.

The lodge hosted eight weddings this

year and has so far scheduled 10 weddings

for next year, said Bourdeau.

For most of us, though, $22 will cover

the cost of a tour of the estate, which

offers unparalleled views of the lake.

The society has other ideas too for

making money. This month it hosted an

event for 10 screenwriters in hopes of luring

some film location work to the site,

said Bourdeau.

And there’s the gift shop, with typical

tourist merchandise refrigerator magnets,

postcards and jackets embroidered

with the Thunderbird Lodge logo as

well as coffee table book chronicling the

estate’s peculiar history.

Most of those idiosyncrasies were provided

by Whittell, a man who lived up to

his oath to never work a day in his life,

said Bourdeau. One of Whittell’s closest

companions was a lion named Bill. He

married three times; the first two were

annulled since the marriages didn’t please

his family. He had no children and left

most of his money to animal advocacy

groups.

A rabble rouser in his youth,Whittell

became very reclusive later in life, said

Bourdeau. He installed colored on top of

the games house to signal friends whether

he wanted any visitors. He showed

movies in the lodge, but would keep his

back to the projectionist when telling him

what he wanted shown. His greatest love,

according to the tour, was a maid who

died in a car accident on the way back to

the lodge from the grocers.

The lodge’s interesting history, not to

mention its spectacular location and

beautiful stone masonry, has attracted the

attention of PBS, which is planning to

film a documentary about the estate, said

Bourdeau.

That’s good news for not just the

lodge and the preservation society, but for

Lake Tahoe as well, said Bourdeau.

Thunderbird Lodge, said Bourdeau, is

more than just a jewel in the lake’s crown.

“The lodge,” he said, “is great for economic

development.”


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